Measuring the distance

Another free speech issue, a tricky one.

France has barred a group of Muslim clerics, including one of the most prominent voices in Sunni Islam, from entering the country to attend a conference.

France’s foreign ministry said Thursday the clerics were invited by the French Islamic Union to speak at a congress in Le Bourget near Paris from April 6-9.

One of those barred, the Egyptian-born Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, says he refuses to come to France.

The ban also includes other high-profile Muslim clerics of Palestinian, Egyptian and Saudi origin.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that “these people call for hatred and violence and seriously violate the principles of the Republic, and in the current context, seriously risk disrupting public order.”

That’s the state banning a particular kind of speech, all right. Free speech liberals think the bar should be very very high for that. Is the bar high enough here?

I don’t know. I suppose I think it’s not high enough as a matter of principle, but as a matter of reality, it may be. I don’t know how to think about it any more coherently than that. As a matter of principle, it seems as if people should be able to hold congresses and invite clerics to speak at them. As a matter of reality, misogynist anti-Semitic xenophobic homophobic clerics can be very dangerous. This insoluble conflict tends to make me despair.



  1. says

    I don’t think this is an issue of free speech, more of an issue of having a say of who you let in your door. To expand the metaphor, in my house, where I set the rules, my house mates may say whatever they want, they can read whatever books they want, even if the thoughts and books are immoral, violent or even instructions on how to harm other housemates, but if they want to invite the author of these books in the house, I reserve the right to declare him persona non grata.

  2. Rieux says

    I dunno, Cafeeine—that kind of rule seems like it’s severely ripe for abuse. Giving governing regimes carte blanche to block anybody they’d like from crossing their borders (though of course, to most extents, they do have precisely that) strikes me as a bad idea.

    To my mind, the question is what particular expression these guys have in fact stated or published. If they have actually incited violence, I’d say France (or whoever) has a legitimate right to bar them. If not—if they’ve just been saying nasty stuff that’s not incitement—, I don’t think the refusal to allow them entry is justifiable.

    Lurking behind this issue, of course, is (the legitimacy of) Western governments’ practice of barring entry to various folks who have been too critical of religion or patriarchy or official misconduct or civil-liberties violations or whatnot. Whatever criteria are used to keep this guy out of France sure better not prevent actual, legitimate social critics from entering the U.S., or for that matter from entering France.

  3. eric says

    Mostly agree with Rieux, though I might be more tolerant of occasional past incitements if there wasn’t a pattern of incitement in their speeches.

    IMO it really comes down to whether the state has a good reason to think some individual is coming into the country to commit a crime. If yes – and inciting people to do violence is typically a crime – then don’t let them in.

    So, I’d say, look at each cleric’s speech. If their regular speeches include exhorting people to break the law in a violent manner,* its legitimate not to let them in. If their regular speeches include exhorting people to change the law via legal means, or legally demonstrate, etc., you should let them in even if you disagree with the change they promote.

  4. eric says

    Err, forgot that *. I meant to add that I’m on the fence about exhortations to commit nonviolent crimes. I can see good arguments both ways. I personally don’t want states barring MLKs or Ghandis for their promotion of civil disobedience. But I have to admit to myself, that’s merely because I am very likely to presonally agree with such people. If, say, I consider people advocating tax fraud instead, my opinion flips and I side with the state.

    I guess in terms of fair process and method, I should support a states’ right to bar people who advocate nonviolent crimes too. But I would hope for a more nuanced response (by the state) in such cases.

  5. says

    The crux of the issue is that, which current international standards, nations have carte blanche as to who they let in their borders. France does not even necessarily have to provide a reason as to why.
    This isn’t a free speech issue, its an issue with the sovereignty of borders. This is not just an issue with ‘Western’ governments. Attempts at open borders have been attempted, like within the EU countries, but its still not a universal right.
    If we’re going to argue moral implications, there are instances of greater moral importance relating to border control than a scholar being disallowed personal access to a convention. If the contents of these scholars teachings are being suppressed, that’s a different issue.

  6. August Pamplona says

    If we’re going to argue moral implications, there are instances of greater moral importance relating to border control than a scholar being disallowed personal access to a convention. If the contents of these scholars teachings are being suppressed, that’s a different issue.

    What would be the purpose of disallowing some author who, for instance, might be known to associate with communists? Is it not to suppress whatever the author has to say? You might argue that it is not the best sort of suppression but it is still suppression.

  7. August Pamplona says

    If the person in question already lived in France (or the US, etc.) attending the conference would be allowed because the alternative of not allowing it would be considered suppression of free speech and modern, western democracies are not supposed to do this. How does denying a visa, for the same purpose, when the person lives abroad not constitute suppression of free speech?

  8. says

    My point is that under current international law, entry within a sovereign state is a privilege, not a right. It makes no sense to talk about censorship in this context, especially if there is no censorship of the scholar’s books or recordings, although if there is, it still doesn’t make the barring illegal.

    Let’s say the scholar was in fact French, was allowed to address anyone he wants to, but his intended audience is francophone and he only speaks Arabic. Is the fact that the French government doesn’t provide him with an interpreter as a matter of course, an issue of censorship?

    Anything that impedes communication can be construed as censorship, but it is not an issue of moral principle to remove all obstacles in someone’s way when they don’t infringe on specific rights. The words of Yusuf al-Qaradawi can still be heard in France, but he doesn’t have a right to be there when they are. That is what a visa would have given him.

  9. Stephen Turner says

    Qaradawi has repeatedly been defended by Ken Livingstone, Labour candidate for Mayor of London. You can find out a bit about Q’s views at Andrew
    Gilligan’s blog, for instance here:

    E.G: gays should be killed, Jews should be killed (all of ’em!), “to be absolved from guilt, the raped woman must have shown some sort of good conduct”

    KL has continued to support Qaradawi even in recent weeks, and I’m afraid it appears that KL is himself anti-Semitic.

  10. eric says

    My point is that under current international law, entry within a sovereign state is a privilege, not a right.

    I understand your point. You’re talking about the situation on the ground, as it exists now. What I would say (borrowing from Rieux) is that this situation is ripe for abuse and potential arbitrary restrictions, and I would hope that soverign states would take a more reasoned and equitable approach to who they let in for speaking engagements – even if you are right and they don’t technically have to take a more reasoned approach.

    Its not just the speaker’s rights that are affected here. If a state can deny access to a speaker because of their content, its a pretty small step from there to denying access to that speaker’s web page, podcasts, etc… If it exists in some other country, letting that signal into the country is a privelege, not a right – right? Isn’t that where your argument leads?

    So put aside for the moment the right of the speaker, and think of the rights of the citizens to access information without government censorship. As long as I have a right to listen to Tom, Dick, or Harry, the state ought to be able to have a good reason beyond the content of their speech for preventing me from hearing their message in person. If the state believes Tom’s going to commit a crime, that’s a good reason for not letting him into the country. If the liberal leader of the state doesn’t like Tom’s conservative politics (or vice versa) and decides not to let him in on that reason alone, its not a good reason: we citizens are impacted by that ruling, not just Tom.

  11. julian says

    I’m not seeing the censorship.

    If the reputations of these three is as bad as everyone seems to agree they are why should any government grant them a visa? All three seem to be good examples of when it appropriate to turn people away. They encourage violence against minorities and women and seem to be openly hoping to destroy the government of the nation they’ve been invited to.

    Were they fleeing for their lives or if the French government was banning their books and prohibiting the distribution of their writing or talks it would be another issue. But as it stands there’s no issue. Th French aren’t censoring anyone by denying three shady characters a visa.

  12. mnb0 says

    All free speech absolutists should read some excerpts from Der Stürmer. Maybe they will set the bar lower too, like I did.

    Absolute free speech has polluted Dutch political discourse. It began with stuff like this:

    “all muslims are goat fuckers.”
    “Homosexuals should be thrown from a tower.”

    My line is insulting and threatening entire groups of people.

  13. sailor1031 says

    US-based free-speech fundamentalists might want to note that Qaradawi has been banned from the USA since 1999. Among other nations that have banned him are the UK and Ireland. France is coming very late to this party. I certainly wouldn’t want my country (Canada) to allow him to enter!

  14. Chris Lawson says

    1. My limit for free speech is the open exhortation of violence — with a bit of leg room for deliberately ambiguous but no less intentional exhortations. To use mnbO’s examples, “all [x] are goatfuckers” is appalling speech and should be condemned in the strongest terms, but should not be criminalised. On the other hand “all [y] should be thrown from a tower” is clearly advocating violence against a group and should, if the threat is considered genuine, be cause for prosecution.

    2. This is very much a free speech question as the French foreign ministry is refusing to issue visas because of what these clerics have said in the past, in order to prevent them saying the same things again on French soil. Yes, it’s a matter of public safety, and yes, there are avenues for speech that are not being blocked for these clerics, but that doesn’t make the free speech issue go away.

  15. sundoga says

    Free Speech is not an absolute. Even in the US, the Supreme Court has stated that the Constitution is not a suicide pact.
    I can see no good reason TO allow people who want to destroy your state into your state.

  16. bernarda says

    I object to calling these guys “scholars”? Scholars of what? The Koran is a short book of an arbitrary collection of sayings by a so-called prophet who may never have existed. The later Hadith isn’t even a so-called “sacred” book, but it is also an arbitrary collection of sayings. It has nothing to do with the Koran except that some may claim it “interprets” the earlier book.

    The Hadith is used to claim that such or such things are right or wrong. Christians often say that one verse which contradictions an earlier one is just “explaining” it. The same with Sharia which has nothing to do with the Koran, which is bad enough itself. These “scholars'” “interpretations” are simply their opinions. They are not scholars, but political leaders, even violent political and military leaders.

    I am French and there are greater dangers to free speech in France than keeping these guys out which is the correct decision. There are laws that apply to French citizens like me that prohibit anyone of us from advocating things like “holocaust denial” or “inciting racial hatred” or saying that slavery was not all bad. New ones are thought up every year.

    The 89 year-old Mr. Guerlain, yes of the perfume company, was just fined 6,000€ for a joke he made on a talk show. He said that “he worked like a negro”. This means that he worked very hard, so is not perjorative. Then he added that, “if negros work that hard”. OK, it’s a bad joke, but is not inciting racial hatred and it is no cause for legal penalties.

    Even though I disagree with the foregoing opinions, it is dangerous to free speech to specifically outlaw them unless they call for attacks on people. Furthermore, I don’t think that anyone who makes their living from spouting religion, be they imams, priests, rabbis, reverends, etc. should be given a visa.

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